How to Edit Photos

I often get asked the question: “How do you edit your photos”

There is no simple answer to this question and it could even turn into a debate which could last days without a solution. Every photographer eventually develops their own style of editing and it is not always something you can impart on others in words. I am going to try to explain what I do when I edit my photos for portraits, weddings or almost anything else.

To edit or not to edit

In my opinion a professional photographer (someone who does photography for a living) should never let a photograph leave their hands in unedited form. It is very rare to photograph something which does not require even the smallest adjustment of some sort. I shoot all photos in RAW and not JPG so editing is a requirement as a pure RAW to JPG conversion would look bland in most cases. If you shoot photos in JPG then you are limited in what you can do in post processing with that photo. If you shoot in JPG then you may get the odd shots that are “perfect” straight from the camera, but in most cases you would want to do some tweaking and JPG editing will result in some sort of loss of quality, so I stick to RAW.

What is editing of a photo?

There are many arguments about what counts as editing and what not. Some photographers would argue that just adjusting contrast levels, saturation, exposure and tones is not editing, but I differ. I believe that anything which changes the original look of the photo is editing and includes:

  1. Contrast, Exposure, Saturation and any other “levels”
  2. Cropping, Straightening or change of aspect ratio
  3. Adding or Removing something from the image
  4. Adding filters
  5. Changing to Black and White

Developing your editing style

Developing an editing style is something very personal and you only realize this after a few years of editing photos. I find so many people who try to copy the styles of popular photographers over and over and they usually end up never feeling quite satisfied because their photos don’t look like those of their favorite photographer. Though there is nothing wrong with admiring another photographer, you should not try to copy another photographers’ editing style as you will usually just feel disappointed. You could use their style as a starting point and then work towards what really feels and looks good to you.

I developed my style by just looking at my images and deciding what I wanted to enhance. I have never tried to copy a style by anyone else. I love a more natural look which appears as close to reality as possible without the obvious Photoshop look. When I look at my images I want them to appear as if they were not edited but rather that they were just captured at the right time with the lighting and everything just having been correct (which does not happen in reality).

What do I edit in my images?

– Check the angles

I start by looking at my angle of the image and checking if the angle needs to be adjusted (straightened) to avoid distractions due to skew horizons or other lines. I usually concentrate heavily on this while taking shots so often straightening is not required.

– Cropping

You often hear other photographers, especially those who teach others, say that when you compose your shots to leave a little room at the top and bottom and left and right so you can crop to what you really want. I followed this technique for a very shot while since constantly cropping shots can become a time waster. I try to frame and compose the shot the way I want it in my final, but sometimes a little copping may be required.

– Eyes

If the angle and cropping is correct I check the eyes of my main subject(s) at 1:1 view (100% zoom). If the eyes are out of focus I reject the photo and move on the to next. If the eyes are out of focus the image may appear good enough at full size, but you will not be able to print enlargements of any sort. I may enhance the saturation and contrast of the eyes slightly, even on full length photos as it is something people viewing your photo always look at (unconsciously). On female subjects I may even darken lashes very slightly (30% burn).

– Blemishes

No-one has perfect skin, but over smoothing the skin gives a person a very plastic look and will look obviously edited. I apply a 30% softening brush with 40% added noise in cases where I want the skin to appear more even. Obvious skin blemishes I use the healing tool, but I try not to remove everything so the natural look is retained. I call this “Perfect Imperfection” I would look at a subject and decide which imperfections I am going to remove and then remove those same ones over and over in consecutive images while leaving a few others present. People looking at the image will note the one or two small imperfections which translate to a reality and subconsciously they believe the image was not edited.

– Lips

I usually add 10% saturation (yes, this is very subtle) to lips and increase sharpness about 30%. I also sometimes do a little dodge (20% or less) on middle parts of the lips to add a glossy look.

– Teeth

Over whitening of teeth look horrendous, yet I see it so often and it looks obviously edited. If I do have to do whitening of teeth I lower the saturation by 15% and increase exposure 20% (dodge) and no more. We have to accept that tooth enamel does not have a pure white glow unless seriously bleached and people accept this.

– Hair

I play quite a bit with hair by doing some dodging on the highlights and burning on mid-tone areas. Do not make dark areas too dark. Lightening highlight areas adds a glow but I keep this subtle so prevent the obvious edited look.

– Overall

Too much of anything is too much so I avoid high contrast to split lights and darks. I use dodge and burn brushes in various parts of an image to balance light towards what I want a viewers eye to really see.

Editing an image is a personal thing and you should do what looks good to you, but also try to be consistent in the way you approach every shoot in terms of editing. Once your style is developed then people start recognizing your images from others. Wildly moving from one editing style to another confuses people and they never know what they are going to get when they come to you for their photo shoot.

Below is an example of a before and after editing image. The original looks fine, but just adding those subtle edits enhances the original into a more appealing image.

Before and After Editing

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